Munch and Expressionism
NEUE GALERIE | FEBRUARY 18 – JUNE 13, 2016
The cumulative impact of seeing Munch’s work in this exhibit was so strong that upon leaving, the streets of Manhattan almost morphed into the cityscape of Munch’s print Evening on Karl Johan, (1892). Although this exhibition intended to show Munch’s influence on the Expressionists, much of their work looked like thin gruel by comparison. Granted, Munch’s paintings and prints simply outnumbered the rest (forty-eight to thirty-three), but only Emil Nolde came close to challenging Munch’s power with his superb woodcuts—which shaped strong affinities with Munch’s—and a startlingly brutal seascape, The Sea B (1930). However, in this context, works by other Expressionist greats such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Oskar Kokoschka looked like filler. In fact, they detracted from what seemed to be Munch and Expressionism’s real story—his artistic development as he moved from a primarily graphic artist, with some command of painting, to a true painter, culminating in the extraordinary post-World-War-I interiors, where his expansive sense of touch came to rival his command of form as an expressive tool.
Munch mastered his unique graphic vocabulary of simplified organic forms through a protracted dialogue with printmaking. Munch and Expressionism wisely devoted much of the exhibition to his woodcuts and lithographs, twenty-nine in all. Printmaking allowed him to distill his compositions to essential contours for maximum dramatic impact. Munch worked serially, repeating the same image template with minor variations in line and color, often shifting from printing to painting and back again, something much admired by later artists like Jasper Johns. Two woodcuts—Towards the Forest I (two versions, 1897/1900 – 08, 1897/1913 – 15) and Towards the Forest II (two versions, 1897/1915 or later, 1897/1915)—differed in their depictions of a couple moving into the massive gloom of trees. In Towards the Forest I the woman was nude, whereas in Towards the Forest, II she wore a white dress, which played off the man’s dark suit, emphasizing the couple as one shape. In the two versions of Towards the Forest II, Munch played with the color, making the first version lighter with an overall yellowish hue, while the second version had a more naturalistic feel, with a dark blue sky and dark green trees. The yellowish version felt reminiscent of the giddiness of a Scandinavian summer’s eve, while the second version’s more somber palette induced a hushed sense of suspense.
No show about Munch can resist including one of art’s most parodied images, and indeed there were multiple versions of The Scream—two prints and a pastel—with a gallery of their own. The only surprise here was an early lithograph of The Scream, (1895), which, instead of the death’s head at the center of the composition, showed a street scene of ghastly pedestrians very similar to the Angst series on display in another gallery. Given the more accurate translation of the original German title, Geschrei, which means “clamor” (or noise coming from multiple sources), rather than “scream” (which suggests a single source); this early version featuring gazes from multiple “others” made more sense in relation to the title. The pastel of The Scream (1895), in acidic tones of red, yellow, black, and cobalt, had Munch’s poem, which gave the series its title, inscribed on the bottom. The last line in German, translated by the Neue Galerie press release as “I felt the great Scream in Nature,” read: “Ich fühlte das groβe Geschrei durch die Natur.” A more accurate rendering would have been “I felt Nature’s great clamor.” Munch’s poem did not so much refer to Nature’s piercing cry as to a soul-crushing psychic implosion. That sense of extreme oppression put him in very good company with other artists from the Symbolist generation.
The pressures from his notoriety during his years in Berlin and Paris in the 1890s, followed by a disastrous break-up with his lover Mathilde (Tulla) Larsen and heavy drinking, drove Munch to a mental breakdown in 1908. In the process of recovering, and exploring Post-Impressionist styles, he developed a new fluency in his painting. In the oil painting Sunbathing (1914 – 1915), the brushwork depicting the naked (not nude) women swimming and lying on rocks had an energy very unlike the subdued surface of pre-1908 paintings like White Night (1900 – 01). That energy peaked, with a vengeance, in one of the most extraordinary paintings in the exhibit, The Artist and His Model (1919 – 21). It, and a companion from the same period, Model by the Wicker Chair, (1919 – 21), showed interiors of Munch’s studio. The hyperactive surface created a powerful counterpoint to the powerful massing of shapes so typical of Munch’s compositions. The net effect created a vibrant field that belied the somber mood in the expressions of the model and Munch, gazing at us over her shoulder. The model, with her elegant neck, bow-shaped mouth, honey-colored hair, and broad cheekbones, bore more than a passing resemblance to Tulla Larsen. The eyes in her darkened face read more like pits, and the left pupil bore the marks of a palette knife, as if Munch had been trying to excavate something. Sheltered within the confines of his studio, Munch found a way to contain the pain of a broken heart that threatened to kill him and channel his existential dread into the expressive potential of the brush, anticipating the rawness of Action painting by twenty years. While Munch and Expressionism did not make the best case for its ostensible thesis, it did render a great service in showing how Munch’s melancholy retreat from society into the interiority of his studio changed the course of painting.
HOVEY BROCK is an artist and has an MFA from the School of Visual Arts Art Practice program. He is a frequent contributor to Artseen.